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1917 Seventy-five Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

Good-bye, Whiskey, Good-bye, Gin

Prohibition forces were approaching a tremendous victory when on December 17 the Senate passed a resolution to send an amendment to the states that would outlaw the “manufacture, sale or transportation” of beverage alcohol. The proposed Eighteenth Amendment, which originated with the dry, godly Sen. Morris Sheppard of Texas, soon whipped through thirty-six state legislatures. The coincidence of wartime strictures, strong sponsorship in the Congress, and prejudice against the high proportion of brewers with German names gave the movement its peculiar strength. The amendment’s passage came as an ugly shock to those wet lawmakers who had voted for it certain that it could never clear the necessary three-quarters of the states in the allotted seven years. In fact, it was the law of the land within thirteen months. (Only thirteen states were completely dry at the time the amendment was proposed.) Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, an abstainer himself, predicted that the latest addition to the Constitution would “last as long as the preamble.… The saloon is as dead as slavery!”

The formal date for enforcement—midnight, January 16, 1920—did not turn into the farewell drunken festival it might have become, mostly because various wartime Prohibition measures had already ruined the surprise. The American temperance movement was nothing new; Michigan had been dry from 1856 to 1875. In the 1880s schoolchildren wore blue ribbons and signed pledges showing their contempt for the Cup of Death. “There is a happy time, not far away,” children were taught to sing, “When Temp’rance truth shall shine bright, bright as day.” Similarly, saloon patrons sang “Good-bye, whiskey, good-bye, gin” when the Prohibiion Amendment finally triumphed.

In addition to being impossible to enforce and flagrantly abused by thriving rumrunners and bootleggers, the law made millionaire celebrities out of mobsters like Al Capone and coincided with that time of staggering public drunkenness later called the Jazz Age. By 1927 Edmund Wilson could give a “Lexicon of Prohibition” of well over a hundred circulating euphemisms for drunkenness, from “full as a tick,” “slopped to the ears,” “scrooched,” and “spifflicated” to “loaded to the muzzle,” “lathered,” “fried to the hat,” “organized,” “squiffy,” “over the Bay,” “Wapsed down,” and “to burn with a low blue flame.” Old terms like “bender” and “spree” were heard less often under Prohibition, according to Wilson, since these words implied quaintly that heavy drinking was a break from the ordinary. “Fierce protracted drinking” had grown “universal,” he wrote, and enriched the language (even as it damaged its practitioners) so that “more nuances are nowadays discriminated than was the case before Prohibition.”

Prohibition lived imperfectly on into the Depression, when on April 7,1933, President Franklin Roosevelt had perhaps the easiest night a new Chief Executive ever had, toasting the return of legal drink with a beer.

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